Albert Oehlen

Galerie Max Hetzler

The paintings in this exhibition don’t have titles, just small parenthetical indications that serve to identify them, such as “American flag,” “Lichtenstein,” “Weapon,” “Cross,” and “Street.” Not only do they offer disclaimers of classical techniques (for example, the flag painting alludes to Jasper Johns), they also stabilize the artist’s work. The path Albert Oehlen has taken is made up of countless salient advances, activities (including nonartistic ones), and revisions, which, almost imperceptibly, but more and more powerfully, have exposed one of today’s most convincing responses to the issues of painting.

The paintings reproduced in the catalogue were executed before those shown in the present exhibition. They consist of strange, untidily stylized letters forming words and sentences, painted on abstract or semiabstract canvases. The following sentence winds around an interior vault and its barred window: “Some oil with which to paint, a good book, my radio, and just let nothing happen.” These words portray the painter’s lies, while almost transmitting a meaning. In those abstract paintings containing few motifs that could be recognized as objects, the sentences act as a grounding device. In the newer pieces, viewers are left on their own; the works derive neither from Oehlen’s earlier abstract paintings nor from anything more recent. These peculiar spaces, with their dripping paint, marked borders, and intersecting layers of color, do not really take shape by means of their technical trademarks. Rather, they seem almost decorative digressions before Oehlen exposes the viewer to the crucial problem: the presentation of a totally new direction to his work. The “street” paintings do not omit the softened perspective, but they can also be traced to issues of color theory that Oehlen raised in earlier work.

For years, Oehlen went through the process of analyzing, dissecting, and researching the primary colors through his mirror paintings, heroic self-portraits, and investigations into the myths surrounding the portrait of Hitler. Now, he confronts us with the aftermath. For many viewers this is a shock, because the extrapolation from this aftermath is a statement on the situation of painting today. The results of the artist’s investigations are presented as material testaments to Oehlen’s will to survive and to understand; they constitute his struggle for beauty. According to Oehlen, beauty is “a special way of being in the right.” The laconic quality evident in his use of geometry commences beyond any criticism and glorification: on softened, insipid lilac-yellow, brownish, and silvery backgrounds, this master of dirty colors now uses clear red, yellow, blue, and green forms, presenting to us a clearer, more pristine view of his ideas.

Jutta Koether

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.